Bob Lutz

Meyer was at the front of Arnie’s Army

Russ Meyer, left, and Arnold Palmer at an aviation conference three years ago. Meyer and Palmer became friends in 1960 and their relationship continued until Palmer’s death Sunday.
Russ Meyer, left, and Arnold Palmer at an aviation conference three years ago. Meyer and Palmer became friends in 1960 and their relationship continued until Palmer’s death Sunday. Courtesy Russ Meyer

It can be difficult to explain how a good friend became a good friend, and Russ Meyer had to stop and think of the right words to discuss his 55-year kinship with Arnold Palmer.

“I guess I’d say it this way,” said Meyer, 84, the chairman emeritus at Textron Aviation and the man who ran Cessna for more than three decades. “You go through life and occasionally you meet someone that you share lots of common values and common interests with. You think certain things are funny, you think certain things are important. Arnie was one of those guys. I would think I might know more about Arnold than anyone other than his family, and I think he would know more about me.”

Meyer said he has received close to 50 e-mails and phone calls expressing sympathy and dismay since Palmer, 87, died in a Pittsburgh hospital Sunday evening.

Meyer met Palmer in 1960, when Meyer joined a law firm in Cleveland that also included Mark McCormack, who founded International Marketing Group that year and signed Palmer as the first client.

“When Arnie came along, there was not a lot of business activity in the golf world,” Meyer said. “In fact, Arnie couldn’t get any money his first six months on the PGA Tour. He had to go through an apprentice program.”

Palmer, who won seven majors from 1958-63 and 62 tournaments overall, became a marketing marvel, earning at least 50 times more through his endorsements than he made as a golfer. And Meyer, a graduate of Yale with a law degree from Harvard, helped him get started in that world before becoming an aircraft executive. He joined Cessna in 1974.

Meyer’s relationship with Palmer flourished.

They were drawn together by their love for two things, Meyer said — golf and aviation.

“Arnold had just learned to fly before we met and our friendship became warmer and warmer,” said Meyer, who helped Palmer find his first airplane, a used Aero Commander that he purchased in 1962 for $32,000. “Then we bought a new Aero Commander in 1964 and a Jet Commander in 1965. He leased a Lear for several years and when I came to Cessna in 1974, we began a long relationship during which he bought seven Citations through the years. Most recently, he purchased his second Citation 10.”

Palmer and his first wife, Winnie, spent significant time in Wichita having his planes serviced and spending time with Meyer and his wife, Helen.

“Arnold loved Wichita,” Meyer said. “We really had the same plan every year when he would visit. The first night, he came to our house for dinner. The second night, we went to the Oasis on Maple for beer and hamburgers and he would sign everything everybody had over there. And the next night we’d pick another restaurant. He would usually stay here three nights, sometimes four.”

Meyer has been all over the world with Palmer and until recently, the families annually spent three or four weeks together in California, relaxing and playing golf on one of Palmer’s many courses.

“He and our wives took a wonderful trip to the Paris Air Show, then went to Normandy and spent a few days in England to play some golf,” Meyer said. “We got back in time to watch Payne Stewart win the U.S. Open in 1999 in their kitchen in Pennsylvania. It’s funny how you remember things like that.”

Meyer said he was with Palmer in New York in 1965, during the height of Arnie’s enormous popularity, when the lights went out in the city.

“We were on the 19th floor of the Essex House waiting to meet people for dinner,” Meyer said. “We ended up walking down 19 floors with our candles but we were able to have dinner because the restaurants in New York at the time used gas.”

There was never a dinner during which Palmer wasn’t recognized, then approached by an army of adoring fans, Meyer said.

“He never, ever turned anybody down. I think sometimes you see someone’s character more when things are not good than when they are winning,” Meyer said. “I was with Arnold all those years when he was winning (1958, 1960, 1962, 1963) the Masters at Augusta.

“But there was a year — and it’s really irrelevant when — that he missed the cut. The Masters was really his tournament and all of a sudden he’s not going to play on the weekend. I remember sitting with him on a little terrace outside the club after everyone had left and some people started coming by. He signed autographs for them just as if he had been winning the tournament.”

Meyer said he witnessed Palmer’s decline in health over the past year or two and tried to get to Pennsylvania to visit as often as possible.

“He had become very short of breath and was having no fun,” Meyer said. “I talked to him a couple of times last week and it’s a bummer. He’s been so frail in trying to get around.”

Pride is what pushed Palmer, Meyer said. He was driven to be the best as a pilot as he was in golf.

“He was a great partner with Cessna over the years because he could speak knowledgeably to pilots,” Meyer said. “So he hosted a lot of events for us. We’ve had a lot of athletes and entertainers over the years who were also pilots, but I certainly don’t think anyone was as true of a professional pilot as Arnold has been. He had to earn his rating, like everyone else. He had 20,000 flying hours and it was relaxing every time he got into the left seat of an airplane.”

During breakfasts I’ve had with Meyer over the past 18 months, the subject of his friendship with Palmer would always come up. It was obvious how much they meant to one another. And after talking with Meyer on the telephone Monday morning, it was just as obvious how much he’ll miss his old friend.

“We were just great friends,” Meyer said. “We talked all the time. He could go to the White House to be with the president and he could go to the Oasis for a beer and a hamburger. And he’d be equally comfortable doing both.”

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